Introduction: How to Catch, Clean and Cook Northern Florida Inshore Fish
In this Instructable, I will describe my method of catching inshore fish (Red Fish, Speckled Trout and Flounder), how to fillet them, and turn them into an amazing meal the entire family will love.
The trip discussed below was made in one morning. I was fishing from my Hobie Pro Angler kayak on and around the intercostal waters of the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Florida. I will show several pictures of fish that were caught, but my fish of choice and the fish to end up on the dinner table will be Flounder. I only keep fish that my family and I intend to eat within two days; I do not like to freeze my fish (when you live as close to the water I do you can be a bit more selective). The fish shown below were all caught before 11:00am and fresh Flounder tacos were on the dinner table by 7:00pm the same day. YUM!
Step 1: Getting Started
Preparation is the key to any successful fishing trip. Preparation begins with the gathering the correct gear and making sure that it is in good working order. There is nothing worse than not having a crucial piece of gear at the critical moment. First I start off each trip by making sure the battery for my depth/fish sounder is fully charged the night before the trip. Since the northern Florida intercoastal waters are tidal, I check to make sure that I have enough water to launch from my favorite boat ramp or, if not, I find one that will work by checking the tides online. Once the tides are known, I will develop a float plan (the map above was my plan) that will get me to the spots I want to fish and back to the ramp with plenty of water clearance. You do NOT want to be stuck out on a mudflat waiting for hours for the tides to turn. The time of day, weather conditions, and the direction of the tide will help me to determine my lure selection. For reference, I have put together a journal that documents some of my best/worst fishing experiences and the conditions that were present during every fishing trip so I can compare the current conditions to what worked best in past similar conditions. As a general rule, I do not like fishing around a full moon since this typically throws off my fishing pattern and I do not catch as many, nor the size of, fish I am use to catching.
Step 2: Tackle and Gear Preparation
Typical gear load out I use:
1. -Fishing rods and reels
2. -Small Tackle Box with Additional lures
3. -Depth Finder
5. -Fish Gripper/pliers
6. -Life Vest (PFD)
8. -Push Pole/Paddle
9. -Fishing Regulations/ License
10. -Measurement stick
11. -Cooler with Ice
You should make sure that you have plenty of time to gather and pack your gear. I normally prep all my gear the night before the fishing trip so I am not rushed and forget things. Listed in the table above are items that I always. The gear that varies from trip to trip are the rods, reels and tackle. I like to take at least 3 rods with me so that I have a variety of lures already tied on. The lures and colors that I use will vary with the conditions and the species of fish that I am targeting. For Flounder, Redfish and Speckled Trout I like to use Redfish Magic, Shrimp Jigs, and Yo-Zuri jerk baits in a variation of colors dependent on water conditions. For Redfish I am a big fan of using Redfish Magic lures and my favorite colors are new penny, white and white and chartreuse. For flounder I use Redfish Magic as well but only stick with white or chartreuse. Lastly, I find that jerk baits and top water popping lures work well at drawing out Speckled Sea Trout. Note: All of my inshore rods and reels are lined with at least 30lb braid and the knot that I use to tie nearly all of my lures is the Palomar knot. (the Palomar knot image is from a Berkley fishing handout)
Step 3: Hydration, Nutrition and Sun Protection
With any type of outdoor sport, eating right and drinking fluids is very important. The weather conditions for fishing can be quite harsh, for example, 96 degrees and a heat index of over 102 degrees. To top that off in a kayak you are the engine, so staying cool may be a challenge. Make sure to pack an appropriate amount of food and water for the amount of time you plan to be fishing. Keeping your energy up by snacking throughout the trip will help to keep your mind focused on the fishing, and in return more successful throughout the day.
Also on a Kayak you are very exposed to the sun so the use of sunscreen, a hat and polarized sunglasses is a must to keep your body safe from the sun's rays.
Step 4: Launching and Landing
Based on the locations you fish, launching your kayak can be a breeze or a challenge. I have owned and used many different types of kayaks, where launching ranges from as easy as carrying the kayak down to the edge of a pond and hopping in to trying to beach launch a Hobie Pro Angler in a 4-6’ surf break (I have really had my butt handed to me a couple of times launching in the surf).
With whatever type of kayak you have and area from which you are launching, just make sure you are able to handle your vessel without hurting yourself. I have had a couple of friends of mine buy a large kayak such as a Hobie Pro Angler, and when they go to really use it, they find that either: it is too large for their vehicle and a trailer must be used, or they find out kayak is too heavy/ bulky for them to transport on their own and now must always have someone to help them. It is always a smart idea to either fish with friends or make sure that someone knows your float plan in case of emergencies.
Step 5: Fishing
Now that the kayak is launched, getting to where the fish are is the priority. I typically have an area that I believe will hold fish, and I try to get to that area as quickly as possible without a lot of wasted casting. This is especially important in tidal conditions were there may be only a small window to get into and out of a spot. Compound that with fishing from a kayak, which means you are only as fast as you can paddle, and it becomes vital to hurry. For example: on the trip when I caught the fish in this Instructable, my fishing spot was about 2 miles away from my launch and I was going to have the current working against me the whole way. So I gave myself about 30-40 minutes of travel time to arrive at my spot. My average cruising pace (3-4.5 mph) would vary on the strength and speed of the current that day. Since I was launching at nearly a low tide the initial current working against me was minimal, but as time went by the flow rate would increase lowering my average pace. Make sure to know your pace, how far the location is from your launch, and what tidal conditions and currents you will be facing so that you can plan to have plenty of time to reach your destination.
When fishing in tidal conditions I find it best to reel the lure the same direction the current is flowing. It is more natural that way, since the smaller bait fish will not fight the current, rather they will flow in and out with the tides as the predatory fish lay and wait facing into the current hoping to catch an easy meal. I normally work into the current so that as I reel my lures back they are coming towards the predatory fish rather than from behind. On my way to my fishing hole, I would hit a few spots along the way in hopes of catching a keeper. Typically I will throw a few casts towards structures such as dock, pylons and natural occurrences like points and creek openings. Flounder, in the areas I fish, will typically hold at the center of the mouth of a small creek waiting to ambush their prey as they swim in or out of the creek. Using a lure such as a spinnerbait or jig will often coax them out.
Accurate and consistent casting is very important when fishing artificial lures. A bad cast will keep your lure out of the strike zone. With every cast that I do, I have a target in mind and where I believe the fish is going to be. Being able to visualize where your prey is hiding comes from lots of practice. The more you fish, the more you will have a better idea of where different species of fish like to set up. To further increase your odds accurate and consistent casting is a skill that must be learned, and the best way to improve upon your casting is to cast a lot. Somewhere down the road some wise man once said “If your lure is not in the water, you can’t catch fish.” That being said, during some tournament days I may cover up to 14 miles and make thousands of casts. The physical exertion is intense, but the reward of catching that perfect slam is so worth it.
Note: As a kid, my father would have me in the yard with my rod and reel and a target like a coffee cup. He would have me cast and pitch at the coffee cup until I perfected my casting and could make it in the cup at varying distances. This was the start of me honing my casting skills and the more I practiced at home the better I did on the water.
Step 6: Catching
Now that your casting is down pat, how do you actually catch
a fish that bites? Or how do you know what fish you have on before you see it? In the case of inshore fishing, there are three species of fish I target: Redfish, Flounder, and Speckled Trout. Each fish has a different feeling when they hit/miss or when they flat out take it.
A Redfish bite is usually the strongest bite; these powerhouse fish usually hit a jig or spinnerbait on the run and keep on running. The best way to explain a Redfish hit is to compare it to being attached to a baseball that just got hit out of the park. The drag will be ripping out instantly, and the fight ensues. When a Redfish misses, I often feel my lure jump to one side then nothing or I feel like my lure just dropped.
For Flounder you often feel a “tick, tick, tick,” and then they take it or they will swallow it and swim towards you with little to no indication that they are on the line. When a Flounder misses it, you will feel the “tick, tick, tick” multiple times, but they never take it; or you would will feel slight vibrations and notice that the Flounder is following your lure up to the kayak then darts away once in sight.
Lastly there are trout, who are like the small but deadly Velociraptors, on top water. These dudes will rocket themselves out of the water, teeth showing trying to destroy your lure. Subsurface they will hit multiple times and give lots of head shakes while on the line. An underwater miss feels similar to a Flounder under the water, but it is a faster strike. A miss on top water is pretty apparent when your lure is jumping all over the surface and fish are boiling around it.
Step 7: Conservation and Cleaning Up Our Waters
I fish for fun a lot and return most of the fish back to the water. I do not like to freeze my fish so If I do keep fish I only keep what my family I intend to eat in one meal. Also while on the water I try to clean up any trash that I may find. In the past I have found some interesting stuff such as a lawn chairs, anchors, coolers, and kayak paddles. These waters are all public, and for the most part, people clean up after themselves, but from time to time there are those who litter without regard to the environment. So I try to do my part by cleaning up the trash I find (on this trip I found 3 aluminum cans) and if I see people littering I have no qualms about calling them out.
Step 8: Clean Up
After any fishing trip, cleaning your gear is crucial to a successful trip the next time. This is even more important in saltwater conditions. Washing down your gear, drying it, and storing it will help to prevent corrosion and increase the longevity of your equipment. Wash your kayak with fresh water and a rag to remove any salt, water scum, or debris. This will help to prevent staining and keeps your kayak looking sharp. Next, onto the rods and reels, I like to lightly spray down the entire rig making sure to wipe down the eyes and body of the rod removing all salt. I also lightly spray the reel, and after drying it up, I add a little lubricant to the line guide and reel gears. I make a few casts to distribute the oil and then store the rod for the next trip. Now that all the gear is cleaned and stored it is time to move onto cleaning the fish.
Step 9: Filleting the Fish
As the saying goes, if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball, well the same is with filleting fish. If you can fillet a Flounder, you can pretty much fillet anything. I have filleted many fish throughout my fishing adventures, such as California White Sea Bass (WSB), Halibut, King Salmon, Mahi-Mahi, Albacore Tuna, and many others. With all of these fish, there are a few simple rules to follow.
- Always work your knives down the backbone; this is your guide to follow.
- Try not to cut into the guts, a clean cut helps to prevent any spoilage.
- A good sharp knife is your friend. For most species, a good sharp flexible blade is what I prefer but when it comes to tuna, I use a stiffer knife to remove the 4 tenderloins.
- Take your time; don’t butcher your fillets because you want to be fast. Again take your time and try and use as much of the fish as you can.
On my favorite fish, such as WSB and Salmon, I will cook up the bones, collars and bellies as an appetizer right after I finish cleaning up the fillets. There is a lot of meat that is lost between the backbones on some larger fish, and if you are willing to do the work of picking around the bones, the reward is a delicious treat that many folks toss out as scraps. Another treat on larger fish are the cheeks. Yes, there are cheeks on a fish. When I used to catch Salmon in California, I would cut out the scalloped sized piece of meat that is the cheek and throw it on the grill skin side down for a few minutes, wow what a treat. This piece was saved for the one who caught the fish. But now back on the subject of cleaning todays catch, two 18” flounder.
Flounder are a flat fish that produce four fillets. I start by first washing off the slime on the fish to get a better hold on it. For the first cut, I start on the top side of the flounder and make a Y shaped cut then work the blade down the backbone/lateral line all the way to the tail. Once the initial cut is made, you can work either side of the backbone slowly making cuts down the backbones and with your other hand pulling back the fillet. This motion is done all the way out to the edge of the fish making sure not to catch any bones along the way. Both top and bottom fillets come off the same but the fillets on the top side are larger and easier to work with. Once all four fillets are off the fish, the skin needs to be removed off the fillet. This is where a flexible fillet knife comes in handy. I make an initial cut at the tail leaving a small piece of meat to hold onto. Next take the blade and flex it on its side and slowly run the knife between the skin and meat keeping the tip of the knife out of the fish. Use a sawing motion from tail to head and “voila”, you have a clean fillet! Check out the video attached for more reference.
Note: sometimes Flounder get little black parasites in them they can easily be cut out without ruining the meat.
Step 10: Use Everything
After the fillets are removed, I put all of the fish parts in a paper grocery bag. I then bury the fish in the bag in my garden or around the flowering plants and trees in my yard. Fish parts are a great natural fertilizer, and it is as natural as it gets.
Step 11: Cooking Fish Tacos
Now on to my favorite part, the cooking and eating portion! With these two fish I got eight fillets, which is more than enough fish to make fish tacos for my family of four. The recipe below is one that I came up with while living in California. For more variety I will prepare the fish two ways, one fried and one baked. What you will need:
- Your favorite fish cooked the way you like
- Black beans (drained)
- Shredded Lettuce
- Diced Tomatoes
- Onions (optional)
- Shredded cheese
Fish Taco Sauce:
- Plain white yogurt (Greek if you like)
- Lemon Juice
- Cayenne Pepper
- Tony Chachere Creole seasoning
For the all-important Fish Taco Sauce, start off by placing even parts (one for one) yogurt and Mayonnaise in a bowl. I usually do about ½ -1 cup of each depending on the number of people I plan to feed . Next, add about a teaspoon of Cumin, a teaspoon of Dill, a ¼ teaspoon of Cayenne and ¼ Tony’s. Add more cayenne if you like yours spicy! Last, but not least, the lemon juice. I add about 1-2 lemons worth of juice hand squeezed. (The left over rind is good to cook with on the grill/oven to add more flavor to the fish) I do make this sauce to taste, so taste as you go and make it your own!
For the tacos, build them up as you like. I take the beans first and put them on the tortilla then take your cooked fish and place it on top of the beans. Next add your veggies: the lettuce, tomatoes, onions and place over the fish. Then the most important ingredient, the Fish Taco Sauce! Lay it on thick or thin. This is the sauce of sauces for any white fish. Next top with cheese, wrap it up and Enjoy!